Every time I think about this, it’s all I can think about.
The World Trade Center was built on top of the first Arab American neighborhood. After the towers fell, construction crews surfaced the cornerstone of a century-old Syrian church in the rubble.
When I first learned about this last year, I was driving along Interstate 5, the 1,400-mile snaking slab of concrete that’s never been more than 15 minutes away from all the places I’ve called home. I pulled off to the shoulder, and mashed the rewind button on the podcast.
I thought I’d heard everything there was to know about this event. I was 7 years old during the attacks, but because my family is Iraqi and Iranian, my eyes were wide open. By middle school, I knew the names of senior-level Bush administration officials. I’ve read, listened to and watched the news regularly since high school. I am a journalist now because of how many hours I spent consuming and critiquing mass media as a kid.
I have also had more than my share of bags randomly searched at the airport, and when I wore a hijab, I felt the hands of TSA agents prodding every bump in the fabric. In the compass of my life, 9/11 is all the directions.
And yet here I was in my car 19 years later, suspended in a stupor over this new wrinkle in the narrative. It made me wonder how much else I’d missed — how much we all missed.
In my work as an education reporter, I’ve written several stories about what kids hear from their schools when big news breaks. After we learned of the coronavirus, George Floyd’s murder, the insurrection attempt and former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment, my first calls were to teachers and students.
I’m grateful for the tenacity of educators who take these issues on, who spring into action and find ways to talk about world events as they are unfolding. But I’m also frustrated that for many kids, this is the exception, not the rule. And for a lot of the events that marked my childhood, that was certainly true.
For the past week, I’ve been interviewing people in the Pacific Northwest who were in school during the period immediately following the 9/11 attacks, and thinking about my own story. Many of them remember that their schools were business as usual even as they saw images of war on the news every day, and they were spared most if not all of the details about the “War on Terror” — including the xenophobia it bred here and abroad.
Among the people I spoke to who felt this way: a woman one year older than I am who grew up so close to a military base in Washington state that her house shook at night from explosion tests.
“I can’t remember any tangible moment when a teacher actually taught us about countries in the Middle East, or why this conflict has been going on,” she told me.
Of course, these gaps span far beyond current events. So much of what I initially learned about the early history of this country had to be corrected as I grew older. A few teachers taught me, for example, that Thanksgiving was a joyous occasion. We skipped over the genocide of Indigenous people and the brutality it took to establish this country; we colored cornucopias instead. We learned that racism began with slavery and ended with “I have a dream.”
In too many cases, teachers have tried to show their students more, but have faced obstacles from supervisors, parents or politicians. A state law in Texas that took effect this month explicitly bans teaching of a New York Times initiative, The 1619 Project, that aims to present a fuller picture of how the consequences of slavery in the United States survive today, and to recognize the contributions of Black Americans. It also prohibits educators from being compelled to teach about current events.
I attended almost exclusively white schools in Oregon. In the days following the attacks, I remember signing a big American flag in Sharpie. I remember my family skipped a school picnic scheduled for the weekend after the attack, which I later learned was because they’d heard about the first wave of post-9/11 hate crimes. Silence was the primary tool used to acknowledge the event. We stayed quiet for a minute on each anniversary.
I can imagine that in the immediate aftermath, figuring out what to say to kids was bewildering, and the pressure to keep things strictly and vaguely patriotic in the classroom was intense. And it’s likely that living on the West Coast, across the country from Ground Zero, made effects of the event seem farther away.
But in the vacuum of any real conversations or context from many of my teachers about what was going on, all the feedback I had was from my peers making uneducated guesses. We brought the headlines to school but none of the context.
One girl strode up to me in P.E. class and asked me if my parents ever beat me. A boy in middle school once turned around in his seat and asked whether I was Sunni or Shia so he could know if I was one of the “good ones.” Or, my personal favorite: in homeroom, a classmate asked very earnestly, “Are you from Islam?” as if it were a country.
The volume of the news, combined with the silence of the curricula at school, made me feel exposed and invisible at the same time.
I think the handful of other kids who shared my background in school felt it too. When I was 13, I reached out (over MySpace) to another Iraqi student to introduce myself and ask him which city his family was from. He acted like he had no idea what I was talking about.
I also tried to hide.
For a few years, I used decoy nationalities that I thought my peers might find more palatable than Iraq or Iran, my family’s ancestral homes, which make up two-thirds of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” I learned recently, through a report from the Council on American Islamic Relations, that this is not unusual.
Compared with many people from Muslim backgrounds — or those perceived to be Muslim — who grew up in this era, I was fortunate. Some received threats, sustained bullying and suffered physical blows at school. That’s still the case today.
I still came away with a love for school and learning. I had a community of Muslim girls at my mosque I could commiserate with. And by high school, things got dramatically better, at least in the classroom. I had teachers who pushed us to know more about the world and our government. My non-Muslim friends looked out for me, smoothing the ends of my hijab and fasting the whole of Ramadan in solidarity.
But what about the other kids in my classes who never got to see the things I did? Whose fathers were never questioned by the FBI for being Iraqi? What do they think of when they think about this day, when they see the headlines about Afghanistan? Did they ever get answers to their questions?
The rallying cry across our country after 9/11 was “Never Forget.” But I don’t know if we ever learned enough to remember.